By PATRICK SALOMON
THE Philippines' senior men's national football team, more popularly known as 'the Azkals', put on a memorable show last night despite a 1-2 defeat to Bahrain's under-23 Olympic team.
The match was the first of two friendlies in three days between the two sides, and it kicked off the first-ever Bahrain-Philippines Football Friendship Games.
Close to 5,000 Filipinos braved yesterday's heat and humidity and flocked to the National Stadium in Riffa for the tie. Some were at the venue as early as 3pm, more than four hours ahead of the game's 7pm kick-off.
Such was the star power of the visiting 'Azkals', who were battling not only the talented hosts but also jet-lag and an all-new climate. They received inspiration though from their legion of fans, who cheered them on at their every kick.
"It felt like a home game," 'Azkals' captain Alexander Borromeo told the GDN. "The way the fans were cheering for us; it was great."
Sayed Dhiya Saeed scored the winning goal for Bahrain early in the second half. With the opposing defence napping, he received a brilliant pass right in the face of goal, and all he needed was to tap the ball past 'Azkals' goalkeeper Eduard Sacapano, who had guessed the wrong way.
Earlier, Abdulwahab Al Malood opened the scoring in the ninth minute, finishing a solo run on the left of the box with a fancy dribble and a superb shot past Philippine defender Anton del Rosario. Al Malood's strike powered into the top-left corner of the net, giving the hosts the early advantage.
But while Al Malood's shot was impressive, Emelio Caligdong's equaliser five minutes before half-time was a sight to behold.
Operating on the left flank, Caligdong unleashed a rocket from nearly 30 yards out that flew into the top-left corner of goal. Bahraini goalkeeper Eyad Nasser Salem had no chance of stopping the well-hit shot, and the Filipino fans erupted in celebration.
Their joy was short-lived, however, as only four minutes after the re-start, Saeed put Bahrain back in front with his tap-in from close range. Though it lacked the flare of the game's first two goals, it did its job for Bahrain.
'The Azkals' had a few chances to level the scores in the second half, but couldn't supply the finishing touch.
"It was a good experience for our side against a good Olympic team from Bahrain," 'Azkals' coach Hans Michael Weiss told the GDN. "We were missing a couple of players here and there, but big credit to our guys who overcame their fatigue and the heat tonight.
"I was happy with the game, and I am looking forward to the second match. It will be a different day, so hopefully a different game."
Popular 'Azkal' James Younghusband, who hit a long-range shot just right over the crossbar during the first half, commented: "It was a good test for us; especially to get used to this weather before Kuwait next week. Everyone worked hard, and we did well to keep the game close.
"The fantastic thing from tonight was all the support we got; it was outstanding to see all the fans come here and give us a cheer."
The 'Azkals' and Bahrain's Olympic team are set to meet once again tomorrow at the Muharraq Club stadium in Arad. The match starts at 7pm.
The Friendship Games have been organised by Creator Marketing Consultancy in partnership with the Bahrain Football Association and Philippine Football Federation. AMA International University Bahrain are the major sponsors.
For inquiries on tomorrow's game, call Rem on 36064822, Chris on 37768683, Rene on 39678323, Edith on 39678313, Nino on 36271121 or Rod on 36598588.
Gulf Daily News